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Latest 27 March 2024

Peak flow: Water companies dump more sewage than ever

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Sewage discharges swelled in 2023 to a stomach-churning 3.6 million hours while water company payouts to shareholders continue to rise.

Water companies have unleashed an unprecedented tide of sewage into rivers and seas, with 464,056 sewage discharges through storm overflows over a total period of 3.6 million hours in 2023. And this tsunami of waste is matched by a surge in the dividends the companies have paid out, with shareholders pocketing £1.4bn in 2022, up £860m from the previous year.

The figures published by the Environment Agency today show that the total duration of sewage discharges across England and Wales in 2023 doubled, compared to the previous year.

Sewage discharges through storm overflows should only happen in an emergency, such as after heavy rainfall. But sewage dumping has become a routine practice in our privatised water industry, which has paid out dividends and loaded up on debt, while our outdated water infrastructure has crumbled.

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In the murky wake of today’s shocking figures, English water companies are still expected to shell out up to £15bn in dividends to their shareholders by the end of the decade. Meanwhile the costs of ending the sewage scandal are being passed on to households struggling with a cost of living crisis.

Water Company Total number of spills in 2023 (no.) Total duration of spills in 2023 (hrs)
United Utilities  97,537 656,014
South West Water 58,249 530,737
Severn Trent Water 60,253 440,446
Yorkshire Water 77,761 516,386
Southern Water 29,494 317,285
Wessex Water 41,453 372,341
Northumbrian Water 46,492 280,029
Anglian Water 31,623 273,163
Thames Water 16,990 196,414
Dwr Cymru/Welsh Water 4,204 23,354
TOTAL 464,056 3,606,170
Source: Environment Agency

Once again, United Utilities is the worst offender, racking up over 650,000 hours of discharges. We’re waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court on a case against United Utilities which could open the floodgates to polluting water firms facing lawsuits from individuals, landowners and businesses bearing the brunt of sewage dumping.

Faced with an environmental scandal and an industry in crisis, the Tories have sat on their hands, putting together a plan to reduce discharges that gives water companies until 2050 to clean up their act – and only includes coastal waters in the wake of our legal challenge.

The Office for Environmental Protection is investigating whether Government and its toothless and underfunded regulators – branded “complicit” by MPs and campaigners – have broken the law.

We will continue to hold the Government, regulators and water firms to account so we can put an end to the sewage scandal once and for all.

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    Update 28/03/24: We previously said there was a 139% increase in the duration that sewage was discharged from 2022 to 2023. In fact, the increase was 104%.

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